How Is Tech Changing the Way We Read?

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With the rise of social media and smartphone use, we are all reading fewer books than we once did. All, not just those pesky millennials. Some people are worried about what this means for the future of literature and, well, our brains. But is it true that we are really reading less? And should I care?

Above The Noise recently did a video in which Myles covers some of the research on reading.

I always appreciate it when a Youtuber or Journalist manages to discuss a topic without devolving into head-shaking admonishment, especially when it comes to the topic of reading and books. Too often these sorts of videos and articles cite bad research or buy into industry propaganda.

I’ve previously discussed the misrepresentations made about reading ebooks, the overstating of the benefits of reading – when there are some well-researched benefits documented –  and even the way we write. And the Pew Research into reading was one of several references I’ve used in my discussion of Who Reads, something I cover quite a bit here.

And yet, there were still some things in the video that I hadn’t been aware of. So I think it is worth sharing. Enjoy.

From the video:

Reading has been an important part of the human experience for thousands of years, but believe it or not, that’s not a long time on the evolutionary timescale. Before the internet, it made sense to read long texts in a linear fashion, but that’s now changing as people are adapting to skimming shorter texts on their computers or phones. But what does this mean for the future of books?

What is literary reading?

Literary reading is, quite simply, the reading of any literature. This includes novels, short stories, poetry, and plays.

Are we reading less?

The rate at which Americans are reading literature for fun is down around 14% from the early 1980s. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are reading less, however. Many people still have to read for school or work. Then there are all the words, sentences, and messages we read on the internet from emails to texts to tweets. Some people believe that this means we are possibly reading more individual words than ever. It’s just being done in a different way. I’ve also discussed the decline of literature.

And this is changing our brains?

Some neuroscientists believe that scanning shorter texts the way we do on the internet, often jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, is actually changing the wiring in our brains. We are becoming better at searching for key terms and scanning for information, but this means it can become more difficult to read a longer text all the way through without missing major points.

SOURCES:
Children, Teens, and Reading
The long, steady decline of literary reading
Who doesn’t read books in America?
Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say

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Economics of medicine

Recently I was reading an article in Aeon Magazine about the challenges faced by the medicine industry – commonly referred to as Big Pharma or Big Pharma written in one of those fonts with blood dripping from it and a syringe being stabbed into a baby. One of the big changes in medicine development discussed was the patent period that allowed monopolies on new drugs, which in turn saw orphan drugs – not drugs for Oliver “please sir, can I have some more” Twist, but drugs for rarer conditions and illnesses – become more popular/profitable to develop.

It’s an interesting issue and the article is worth reading. But it got me to thinking about something a little tangential. No, not whether Oliver Twist needs a remake set in south-east Asian sweatshops. I wondered how much money is actually spent on things.

Take for example this:

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Source.

Drug development appears to take a backseat to marketing. But this depends on what section of the market, how big the company is, and other factors. Clearly, medicine development is still a big expense, but how much is spent on research and development overall?

Worldwide pharma R&D $
Total global pharmaceutical research and development spending from 2008 to 2022 (in billions of U.S. dollars) Source.

That global pharmaceutical research spending is quite large at $165 billion. Or is it?

Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP % of World share
World total 1,739 2.2
1 United States United States 610.0 3.1 35.0
2 China People’s Republic of China 228.0 1.9 13.0
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 69.4 10 4.0
4 Russia Russia 66.3 4.3 3.8
5 India India 63.9 2.5 3.7
6 France France 57.8 2.3 3.3
7 United Kingdom United Kingdom 47.2 1.8 2.7
8 Japan Japan 45.4 0.9 2.6
9 Germany Germany 44.3 1.2 2.5
10 South Korea South Korea 39.2 2.6 2.3
11 Brazil Brazil 29.3 1.4 1.7
12 Italy Italy 29.2 1.7 1.7
13 Australia Australia 27.5 2.0 1.6
14 Canada Canada 20.6 1.3 1.2
15 Turkey Turkey 18.2 2.2 1.0  sourceoriginal

Suddenly the amount spent on medicine research and development seems rather small. The USA government alone could easily cover the expense of medicine research if it decided to change priorities, since it spends 3.7 times that much on defence.*

Would it be a good idea for governments to have a Department of Pharmaceuticals that researched, developed, and sold medicines? Would that be money better spent than stockpiling tanks in a desert? Certainly, it would address several of the issues raised in the Aeon Magazine article around how the profitability of drugs, rather than the consumer needs, drives research and development.

This sort of thinking could be applied to many industries. The reality is that there isn’t actually a shortage of money but a lack of incentive to invest money in some areas in favour of others. The solution doesn’t have to be the government taking over, nor does it have to be about private companies not being profitable. But maybe it does have to be about rethinking what we spend money on.

Richard Denniss made similar arguments in his Quarterly Essay Dead Right about the Australian economy.

So maybe it is time to stop accepting the argument “we can’t afford X” and start having the discussion about how we spend for the most good. Or not, I’m not your boss.

*To be clear, I’m not suggesting we stop all spending on something like defense, or that there aren’t reasons for spending money on things like tanks. But as Richard’s video suggests, we are making value judgments and assumptions without really questioning them.

Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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Book review: A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Briefer History of TimeA Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was brief.

In the late 1980s, Stephen Hawking became the name synonymous with smart people, science, and computerised voices when he released A Brief History of Time. In the intervening 27 years (this book was published in 2005) a lot of progress has been made in physics and our understanding of the universe, so this is an update on curved space, quantum gravity, black holes, Newtonian physics, relativity, the Big Bang (everywhere stretch), wormholes and time travel, and the search for a grand unifying theory of reality.

Obviously, this all sounds like very complicated stuff that you’ll battle to wrap your head around. I have to admit, when I read A Brief History of Time in my 20s I struggled with it. Imagining 4-dimensional space was confusing, imagining another 6 dimensions on top of that with string theory was just too much for me. So maybe I’m older, wiser, smarter, and have added centimetres to my head circumference, because I found this book clear and easy to understand. Or maybe this updated version is clearer than the original. Or maybe I’m just more familiar with physics now and can kid myself that it isn’t that hard to understand.

Either way, I found this to be a clear, concise, and easy to understand overview of spacetime physics.

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What genre is the 2008 book Outliers in? What are some similar books in that genre?

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The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a popular example of fiction.

Outliers is probably most famous for promoting the idea of the 10,000 Hour Rule based on how many hours it will take you to get good at doing something. But like all good fiction, it ignores the reality of how skills are acquired.

Unfortunately, many people have mistakenly assumed that Gladwell’s writing should be classified as non-fiction pop-science, or even worse, factual. This has lead many researchers to waste time and resources showing that the 10,000 Hour Rule is nonsense, and that Outliers is pop-science at its worst – i.e. incredibly influential despite being clearly nonsense.

Reviewers of the book have noted the flaws in calling this book non-fiction*:

In an article about the book for The New York TimesSteven Pinker wrote, “The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hocsophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”[20]

In a review in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called the final chapter of Outliers “impervious to all forms of critical thinking”.[21]

And several researchers have debunked many factual claims made in the book*:

Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. Macnamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing” but “we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”.[24]

Statistical analyst Jeff Sauro looked at Gladwell’s claim that between 1952 and 1958 was the best time to be born to become a software millionaire. Sauro found that, although the 1952–1958 category held the most births, “[a] software millionaire is more than twice as likely to be born outside the 1952 to 1958 window than within it.” Sauro notes that Gladwell’s claims are used more as a means of getting the reader to think about patterns in general, rather than a pursuit of verifiable fact.[25]

In fact, the 10,000 Hour Rule seems to irk people in the social sciences quite a bit. E.g. Practice Does Not Make Perfect – We are not all created equal where our genes and abilities are concerned.

Are there similar authors and similar books using misleading, cherry-picked, and tenuous research to make broad sweeping pop-science claims that make people feel good? Of course. Plenty of them. It is a minefield in the non-fiction section of bookstores, which I think should be more accurately renamed “Boring Fiction”. So I think it would be negligent of me to recommend more books like Outliers or authors like Malcolm Gladwell.

*Quotes taken from Wikipedia.

This answer originally appeared on Quora.

Book review: How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox and Robin Ince

How to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage AdventureHow to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage Adventure by Brian Cox

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to bake some chocolate muffins from scratch, so this book should be useful.

Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince, and Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Feachem are the team behind the popular The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC science show that pairs scientists and comedians for laughs and education. From 2009 they have produced +100 shows covering all sorts of topics. This book encapsulates some highlights and essays around their favourite topics and common science communication issues* they have covered in that time.

From the opening forewards to the covering of Schrodinger’s Strawberry I was heartily entertained. As a science nerd and fan of comedy, this book seems to have been written specifically for me. It actually left me feeling a bit annoyed that I haven’t, as yet, listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage show, despite having been aware of it for quite some time. So I guess I’ll be rectifying that soon.

What I like most about this approach to science is that it doesn’t seek to sex up science (or dumb down, depending upon the preferred flavour of marketing), but instead make it accessible and entertaining. There is a line between those two that too often those in the media can’t tell the difference between. Science is interesting, but it is complicated, it is often dry, and communicating scientific knowledge as done here is hard to do.

* Yes, I do mean how people aren’t willing to honestly engage with science, either through pseudoscience co-opting, or denial of evidence, or wanting certainty instead of the probability that science offers.

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